Sunday, July 15, 2012

On "Getting it Right"

Have you ever seen the movie Contagion? You should, assuming doomsday stuff doesn't give you nightmares. Basically, the premise is that a new, very lethal epidemic is spreading around the world. The movie explores this epidemic through the eyes of scientists, epidemiologists, government officials, the media, and, of course, everyday citizens. Not only is it an amazing movie in how it explores and develops its themes, but another thing that really stuck out to me was how well-researched it was. Granted, I'm neither a pathologist nor an epidemiologist, but never once did I question the legitimacy of the science behind the movie.

Compare that to another doomsday movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The whole movie works on the premise that scientists who are smart enough to cure Alzheimer's are also incredible idiots. I won't get into how badly they messed up on the scientific elements (They're talking about basing human drug trials on one successful animal! Has no one on the production team taken a statistics class?) (Why are you stealing lab animals out of the wild? This isn't the 1970s! Do you have any idea how unknown diseases could affect your data?) (BCL Safety Levels were created for a reason!), but believe me when I say that it was an insult to anyone who has actually performed animal research. (HOW THE HELL DID YOU NOT NOTICE THAT YOUR CHIMP GOT PREGNANT? YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO KEEP THE MALES AND FEMALES SEPARATE FOR EXACTLY THAT REASON! Unless immaculate conception is one of the side effects of this Alzheimer's drug, of course. Actually, that premise would make a great idea for a novel.*)

I know a lot of you have seen me call out writers for their lack of research. And I've had conversations with people about how much research is important for a novel. Cultural research is a big one, particularly if you're writing historical fiction or setting your book in a different part of the world. (And it can be really hilarious when authors fuck this up.) It's also important that when your characters have a special skill or profession that you understand how it works (such as the publishing industry, for example).

But some topics, especially science, medicine, and technology, tend to be really hard topics to get right, due to all the esoteric knowledge behind them. (Hey look! I found a practical use for the word 'esoteric'! Other than, you know, impressing people with my awesome vocab skillz.) A lot of this is stuff that most people won't pick up on. So how important is it to do the research here?

Honestly, I feel like this depends on the writer. For me, some areas are more important to "get right" than others. Worldbuilding is a big one. Since Takira isn't a real world/country, I can't exactly look it up on Wikipedia, but I still have to develop the world and make it feel believable. One of the major worldbuilding difficulties I had was figuring out materials. Takirans don't use metal or animal products, so I have to find a way around that. Magic makes up for some of these things, but since only one or two people can use a particular talisman at a certain time, I can't use this as a foundation for everything. Instead, I have to understand how Takirans are building houses, cutting/breaking things, starting fires, or even making music without the use of metal, bones, or hide. Mostly, they use a combination of rocks, clay, and plants, with magic thrown in whenever stuff needs to be constructed, fortified, or taken apart. They use obsidian for cutting, oil instead of wax for their candles, papyrus for writing, rubber sap for water-proofing, and a certain combination of rocks for starting fires. (I discussed some of the aspects of worldbuilding with an anthropology major to help me figure out some of these details.) Based on all the raw materials that would be necessary for this world, as well as the warm climate, the geography of the world would probably resemble Hawaii. The culture, meanwhile, comes from a wide variety of influences. The cities were, in part, based on early an Israeli kibbutz--small, close-knit, and with a huge agricultural focus. There are also some Jewish influences in the religion (small things, mostly), but for the most part, Takiran culture is its own thing, with its own philosophical and religious grounding. (Though I did borrow stuff from other cultures, such as the round (vs. rectangular) tables. In China, round tables represent equality. Also, the 'cistern' is an Arabic influence.) In terms of ethnicity, Takirans would most closely resemble Middle Easterners, since they would have probably branched off from our world during the time of the Fertile Crescent, (This is why, if my book gets published, no one will ever turn it into a movie,) though given that they've been relatively isolated for at least 5000 years, they have developed some of their own distinct facial features.

Another important research element is anything medicine-related. When a person gets injured, I need to know exactly what is going on with their body. Which nerve would have to be torn in order to produce a certain kind of handicap? Where would a bullet have to hit in order to produce an almost-but-not-quite lethal effect? How much time would transpire before a character with a certain injury bled to death? I have used medical textbooks and dissection videos as a reference for these injuries and re-worked certain elements of the plot so that everything made sense.  Maybe this is going overboard a little (and I don't expect most authors to go this far), but I don't want to come back to my book five or ten years later, after I have graduated from medical school, and cringe at all the stuff I got wrong.

But what about stuff I don't care about? Technology is a big one. I am perfectly willing to use hand-waving on all technology matters. If I read a book where a computer hacker has God-like powers, I will bow my head and say "okay." Why? Because I don't care about technology. Programming sounds incredibly dull, and I have no interest in actually learning enough about it to know what is and isn't possible. (And anyway, my book doesn't have that much technology in it.) I get that some people would be upset by this, but those people can go find something else to read.

But what about my advice to other writers? I have outlined all the stuff I care about research-wise, but other people have different priorities. So could we establish some guidelines that work for everyone?

A) It depends on the focus of the story. For example, if your story centers on your protagonist's psychological condition, or a significant part of the story takes place in another country, you should be doing hardcore research. If it affects an important plot event, you should also do the research. (Distance and timing are a big thing here. I had to re-structure some of the events of my novel so that a character would have enough time to physically travel from Point A to Point B in order to arrive at the "action scene" at the right moment.) However, the more minor this particular character/setting/event/object are, the less you have to torture yourself over "getting it right."

B) It should make logical sense. A big issue I had with the first two books of the Divergent trilogy is that they don't make sense. Veronica Roth keeps trying to tell us that Divergents are special because of their strong-will and flexible personalities, but those two things are not correlated. If anything, I would expect a flexible person to be less strong-willed. This should also make sense in terms of character ability. There are certain skills that cannot be mastered in a matter of days. One example is the character Phoebe, from Legend. She's thirteen years old, and one character comments that she is a "natural healer." How can you be a natural healer? Sure, some people have steadier hands or are better at memorizing huge chunks of scientific knowledge, but actual medical skills are not innate. Unless this girl grew up reading medical textbooks or shadowing surgeons, I don't know how she could have any established skill at "healing"--unless her healing skills are limited to stitching wounds and wrapping bandages, neither of which are that difficult to master. (Or are we talking about setting broken bones? I have no idea whether or not that's a skill that can be learned naturally, though I do know that if I ever broke a bone, I wouldn't trust anyone except a trained professional to set it.)

Wow, that got long. Anyway, I have to go be responsible and work on application essays and/or get some story writing done. So I hope that helped!

*I'm not kidding. Somebody please write that book.

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